Conservatives out of step

Published 9:38 am Thursday, March 13, 2014

Did you ever think you’d see the day when decrying low-income kids who get free school lunches would become a political battle cry, coupled with the suggestion that parents who sign up their kids for free lunches love them less than parents who send their children to school with brown bagged bologna sandwiches?

The real bologna is actually in conservatives’ “No free school lunches!” battle cry, and in what turned out to be a bogus example Rep. Paul Ryan used in his speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference to take the argument to a new (low) level. He suggested needy parents of poor children on free school lunches don’t care about their children.

The school lunch program is merely the latest example of 21st century conservatives distancing themselves from a “given” strongly supported by b-o-t-h political parties (for instance, food stamps, supported by Richard Nixon, among others). Ryan told the proven-to-be-fictitious story of a child who didn’t want a free lunch but a brown bag lunch “because he knew a kid with a brown bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.”

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In fact, Ryan apparently doesn’t understand the program.

The 1946 Richard B. Russell National School Act, signed by President Harry Truman, had two specific policy goals: to provide food to poor school-age children while helping prop up food prices by putting farm surpluses to use. Studies have shown that hungry kids are less able to concentrate and learn. The program isn’t perfect: Reports suggest it doesn’t always work well, is not always available in some older schools, and there isn’t always enough funding so some kids are indeed hungry in school.

The lunch program was never a case of just one party saying, “Let’s get involved in providing needy kids free lunches because we have the power to do it, and we need to show we have that power to make them dependent.” And it was never a case of parents saying, “Since we don’t love our kids, we won’t make a bologna sandwich with our loving hands and shove it and a bag of Doritos in a brown bag and let them take it to school. Let them suffer and eat that free school lunch!”

If those sound like silly and unfair characterizations, they are no more silly or unfair than Ryan’s suggestion that poor parents who’ve signed their kids up for free school lunches are lousy and unfeeling parents. But one could argue those who demonize and diss needy children and parents would make lousy leaders and are seemingly unfeeling human beings — even though they will insist otherwise.

Mr. Ryan apparently has not spent much time talking to needy kids or their parents. They don’t show up at fundraisers.

Frederick Douglass said: “It’s easier to build strong children then to repair broken men.” The compassion lever seems broken on some of today’s conservatives who are seemingly in a frenzied race to prove themselves to be the least compassionate. Precisely what is Ryan’s alternative? Deny a child from a family that may be financially hurting a free lunch? Nelson Mandela correctly noted: “There can be no keener revelation of a society soul than the way it treats its children.”

Fortunately, the American mainstream isn’t ready to deny innocent kids free lunches or denigrate parents who sign up for free lunches so their child can compete with better-off kids at school. The operative word here is “mainstream.” More and more 21st century conservatives seem to be moving away from America’s mainstream, and polls confirm they aren’t in step with the bulk of millennial voters.

Does Mr. Ryan really feel that way about poor parents? Or was he using kids who get free school lunches as an ideological tool to pander to his conservative audience and political best buds?

He and those who seemingly seek political gain by dissing parents whose kids get free school lunches might ponder a quote from another major thinker, Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”


Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. Centrists Columnists and Commentators. He can be reached at